In Defense of the Fort

Dave - Oak Park, Illinois
Entered on October 18, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50

I wonder if kids today have forts? I don’t mean those playsets that parents piece together in their back yards out of slabs of lightweight colorful plastic, with windows, roofs and doors already in place. I have nothing against these assemblages, but I’m really thinking of those places of refuge that many of us, who are now middle-aged or older, used to invent seemingly out of the scraps, shrubs or trees that were at hand in our neighborhoods.

Our 1960’s neighborhood was suburban, pleasant, and typical. As kids we had our small differences, but one thing that many of us had in common was our forts. Our forts were places we created, where we could go and do what we wanted. Neither distant nor hidden, they were all squarely in their respective lots within easy earshot of our folks.

These could be quite simple or far more complicated, especially if older siblings helped in the construction. My friend across the street, had his fort in the shrubby corner of their back yard. The floor was an earthen mound of clay soil that contained old junk, maybe construction spoils that we excavated with interest. We exhumed old electric wires and pieces of broken tools, even created crude robots with rusty hammerheads to wage war (as only first graders can) on our parents – who must have scolded us for some long forgotten transgression.

His fort even had an escape rope, all of 18 inches long, which hung from a heavy shrub branch that grew sideways in front of a gap in the bushes. I can only imagine this must have been inspired by the Batman show on TV, who was always climbing up some building. I can only recall testing this skinny rope once or twice. It didn’t aid any potential escape, but we agreed it might be useful if one of the older kids were chasing us.

The older kids had built more elaborate structures from plywood and lumber scraps. At the end of our street was a tree fort that even had carpeting. Climbing up that willow on rickety steps of one-by lumber seemed like a big deal probably because it was a feat that the bigger kids could do. But by then the bigger kids had bicycles and paper routes, worlds beyond a humble perch in a tree.

For a time, maybe around age 4 or 5 my fort was the hollow found inside a group of old honeysuckle bushes out by the road. I could maneuver my trucks and soldiers on an area no bigger than a card table. I have absolutely no idea how I picked that spot for my refuge. Later I built a new fort inside our old log pile. This damp, short lived structure featured a porous canvas tarp for a roof.

I have to laugh now because these forts we had seem crazy. But I swear that I turned out alright, and my mom and dad never once seemed concerned about their youngest child who was out there in the shrubs. I’m sure they were watchful, but I’m truly grateful that I lived in that era of benign parental neglect.

We kids were always hustled outside, but given no instructions of what to do once there. I now know what a blessing it was to have been given the freedom to build these little forts, imaginary strongholds from which to explore this new world, lawn by lawn.